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Deportation leaves Hall County teens without parents
'Sometimes the law just breaks families apart,' says East Hall High senior
Jonathan Rodriguez, right, and his brother Alexis recently saw their father deported to Mexico. Their mother later left as well to help care for her husband’s health issues. - photo by Erin O. Smith

From the outside, this home in East Hall looks like any other.

A big grassy lawn leads up to the front stoop of the two-story wood-framed residence, which is tucked away in a quiet subdivision where kids freely roam, skateboarding and playing ball in the streets and jumping out of the way as cars slowly drive by.

A gaggle of little children chase after the family dog and roll around on the floor. Meanwhile, a stalwart grandmother, now raising a third generation of kids, the worn lines of the years etched in her striking yet stoic face, stands idly to the side.

It’s a crowded home, and there’s lots of love filling it.

But there is a gnawing absence, too.

“Sometimes the law just breaks families apart,” said Jonathan Rodriguez, an 18-year-old who will graduate from East Hall High School next month.

His father, Eligio, was deported to Mexico in March after multiple charges of driving without a license.

Had President Barack Obama’s executive order — which was announced last fall and provided relief from deportation for millions of undocumented immigrants — been in place just a year ago, Eligio would likely not be in Mexico today.

And Jonathan’s mother, Francisca, would not have had to follow him a few weeks later to help care for his diabetes.

Jonathan drove his mother from Georgia to Texas, across the border where drug cartels often rule with violence.

“Just the trip there was really hard,” he said. “Coming back to Atlanta, it just made me happy to see the city.”

Jonathan said there is little hope of his immigrant parents returning to the United States, at least for the foreseeable future.

And so Jonathan is the man of the house now, putting his aspirations to attend college on hold due to lack of finances.

“I wanted to go into graphic design,” he said, before adding, “I’m not going to be able to support them if I’m just working at a part-time job.”

Immigration policies

According to a report released by the Pew Research Center last fall, there were an estimated 11.2 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States in 2012, or about 3.5 percent of the population and better than 5 percent of the nation’s workforce.

That number has fallen off since reaching its peak of 12.2 million in 2007.

Mexicans make up about 52 percent of all unauthorized immigrants.

More than 438,000 undocumented immigrants were deported in the 2013 federal fiscal year, the most recent data available, which was a record number for any 12-month period. And between 2009 and 2013, more than 2 million immigrants were deported.

Meanwhile, more than 580,000 undocumented immigrants have gotten a reprieve from deportation between 2012 and early in the 2014 fiscal year, a result of a policy called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.

Last November, Obama took additional steps to defer deportation for many undocumented immigrants, a controversial decision that remains tied up in the courts.

Twenty-six states, including Georgia, filed suit to stop the executive action from proceeding, arguing the White House had overstepped its constitutional authority.

“... President Obama once again proved that he’s more concerned with advancing his own personal agenda than the will of the American people,” Georgia Republican Party Chairman John Padgett said in a statement after the executive action was announced. “Americans deserve a robust debate on immigration reform, not a swift edict from an ultrapartisan, power-hungry president.”

If the new policy is allowed to go forward, it could prevent the deportation of up to 5 million undocumented immigrants and allow those who have lived in the United States for more than five years, or are parents of American children — such as Eligio and Francisca — to remain here legally and, in some cases, obtain work permits.

“We do think this (executive action) will enable many families to be able to get work permits and eventually driver’s licenses, while also being able to continue to contribute taxes and be productive members of Hall County,” Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, told The Times earlier this year. “The attempts to stop this action are misguided political attempts not based on sound legal precedent.”

Gonzalez said about 116,000 families in Georgia could potentially be affected by the president’s action. His organization has joined more than 150 civil, labor and immigrants’ rights groups in filing an amicus brief in support of Obama’s executive action.

“Had the (executive action) not been stopped by a judge in Texas ... we have no doubt that Mr. Rodriguez would still be here and his children would not be two teenagers taking care of each other,” said Atlanta immigration attorney Carolina Antonini, who represented the family in Eligio’s deportation proceedings.

A family’s story

Jonathan was born in Texas shortly after his parents crossed the border in the late 1990s, leaving their roots in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas in search of better economic opportunity.

Today, Tamaulipas is rife with drug-related violence. Corruption is endemic and poverty is rampant.

“I don’t want to be there,” Jonathan said.

His parents took the family back to Mexico sometime after his birth, escaping what Jonathan was told was a volatile living situation in south Texas.

His younger brother, Alexis, was born shortly thereafter in Tamaulipis.

Now 16 and a sophomore at East Hall High School, Alexis got his first glimpse of America in 2004 at age 5. That’s when his parents returned to the United States and settled in Hall County, where their grandmother and uncle were living.

The family came in waves, not uncommon for Latino immigrants.

One by one they all reunited, and their past lives in Mexico became just that — the past. There was no looking back.

Eligio worked in factories in Hall County, as many immigrants do, and so did Francisca, at least sporadically.

But the sense of having found home began to shatter in December 2011, Jonathan said.

Late one night, Eligio was driving home from work, his sons said, when he fell asleep at the wheel just a few hundred yards from home.

The car smashed into a tree and Eligio was arrested for driving without a license and failure to maintain a lane.

Antonini said that’s when Eligio first drew the attention of U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement.

But Eligio was determined not to be a risk, Antonini said. His bond was waived and he was released on his own recognizance.

Antonini said she believes immigration authorities also took into account that Eligio is insulin-dependent.

Nevertheless, he was placed in deportation proceedings that would play out over the following three years.

Antonini said he was simply charged with being here illegally, and that no criminal charges were lodged against Eligio. Under federal law, illegal immigration is a civil offense.

About a year after Eligio’s car accident, following a weekend outing at a lake, authorities stopped the family car at a roadblock and issued Eligio another citation for driving without a license.

It’s somewhat unclear what happened next, but Jonathan said his father believed the ticket had been waived.

When stopped once more for the same offense a short time later, the family learned there was a warrant for his arrest, Jonathan said. And from there things seemed to quickly spiral.

According to ICE, an immigration judge first ordered Eligio be deported in June 2014.

Undocumented immigrants issued a “final order of removal” on or after Jan. 1, 2014, are a priority for deportation, based a memorandum released last year by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security on the same November day when Obama announced his executive action.

“In general, our enforcement and removal policies should continue to prioritize threats to national security, public safety and border security,” the memo reads.

It also outlines areas where prosecutorial discretion should be applied, including determining “whom to stop, question, and arrest; whom to detain or release; whether to grant deferred action, parole or a stay of removal.”

Antonini applied for a stay, “but following a review of his case, ICE officials did not exercise prosecutorial discretion and (Eligio) was removed to Mexico March 12,” Vincent Picard, a spokesman for ICE in Atlanta, told The Times in a recent email.

Missing the mark

There are various qualifications that can allow undocumented immigrants to stay in the U.S., including deferred action for those who have been in the United States continuously for more than 10 years.

“(Eligio) missed the 10 years because he must accrue the 10 years prior to being placed in removal proceedings,” Antonini said.

Eligio was deported in 2014 but placed in removal proceedings in December 2011. His family had come to Hall County in 2004.

“He had been here before (when Jonathan was born), but his absence before 2004 exceeded 90 days and disqualified him from showing 10 years of continuous physical presence,” Antonini said.

But there is some discretion allowed in deciding on deportation, Antonini said, and that had so far kept Eligio here.

Antonini prepared Eligio’s case, filing 180 pages of documents citing many reasons why she believed he should be granted deferred action, including his diabetic condition, family ties and lack of major criminal offenses.

On March 9, Antonini filed the stay of removal, but the request was denied the next day. And two days later, Eligio was put on a plane back to Mexico.

“This is the first time that immigration has done anything quickly,” Antonini said. “I’ve never had a request reviewed, whether denied or approved, this fast in my life. And the next thing you know he’s on a plane.”

The case didn’t warrant the kind of discretion Antonini was hoping for, according to a letter from ICE obtained by The Times.

“U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement has thoroughly reviewed the information and documentation provided with your request, taking into consideration the circumstances of this specific case,” the letter states. “Upon review, it has been determined that this case does fall under the ICE enforcement priorities and does not warrant the favorable exercise of prosecutorial discretion under current ICE directives.

“Your client’s application for a stay of deportation or removal is denied. You may not appeal this decision ...”

Uncertain future

The news that their father was being deported hit Jonathan and Alexis hard.

“As soon as I found out, I said, ‘Well, eventually we’re going to get split up,’ which isn’t the best thing for your teenage years,’” Alexis said. “So, it was pretty bad. We thought he would have more time for the lawyer to do something.”

Jonathan and Alexis did not have the opportunity to see their father between the time his request was denied and when he was put on a plane.

The boys said their father is an honest, hard-working man, and their relationship is typical of fathers and sons at their age.

When their mother left, Alexis recalled her hugging him and saying she loved him and to take care of the family.

The future is never clear, but it may be less so for Jonathan and Alexis, two young men with mild manners, eclectic tastes in music and a love of video games. And two young men without their parents.

Alexis said his prospects may be better than his brother’s, but uncertainty remains a driving force in his life.

“I’m hoping to go to college, but that’s looking kind of shallow at times,” he said, adding that he would like to be a paramedic one day. “I feel, sometimes, like it’s just a dream.”